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Coronavirus: Can We Still Live Sustainably?
By Martin Kuebler
The global coronavirus pandemic has thrown our daily routine into disarray. Billions are housebound, social contact is off-limits and an invisible virus makes up look at the outside world with suspicion. No surprise, then, that sustainability and the climate movement aren't exactly a priority for many these days.
We don't have to abandon our green habits during the crisis, but some might have to be adapted for the foreseeable future as we continue to learn about COVID-19 and how this new disease spreads.
The following, while not official medical advice, is based on the latest information from health authorities in Germany, the United States, the European Union and the World Health Organization.
It should be considered along with the official recommendations that have stressed the importance of maintaining distance and staying home, if possible — and, of course, proper hand-washing with soap and water for at least 20 seconds.
Are foods wrapped in plastic safer?
People tend to view packaged foods as being cleaner and safer to consume, and research firm BloombergNEF pointed out in a mid-March report that "concerns around food hygiene due to COVID-19 could increase plastic packaging intensity." After all, much of the materials used in hospitals are made of single-use plastic, so shouldn't we apply the same standards to our food?
"Plastic does not inherently make something clean and safe," said Ivy Schlegel, a research specialist for Greenpeace USA, in a recent report from the environmental group. Schlegel pointed out that a number of studies, including one published March 17 in the New England Journal of Medicine found that "the virus will persist on plastic longer than almost any material examined [up to three days in laboratory conditions — editor's note], which could call into question the safety of the majority of plastic-packaged items in supermarkets.
"While stores are wiping down and disinfecting surfaces like door handles, shopping carts and checkout card terminals, it's highly unlikely that employees have time to clean every package of pasta or can of beans. Bottled water isn't necessary, either: the European Food Information Council has pointed out that although the "virus can remain active in water for a short period of time," tap water is filtered and disinfected before it reaches the home, "which would inactivate the COVID-19 virus."
That means we can still choose glass or cardboard packaging over plastic. Purchased products can also be left in a separate box in an out-of-the-way place for three days, to allow any traces of the virus to die off. Fresh produce that will be eaten raw can be scrubbed with a vegetable brush and plenty of water; according to Mike Kortsch at Germany's Federal Institute for Risk Assessment (BfR), that's enough to ensure it's safe to eat, even unpeeled.
Do reusable bags and containers spread the virus?
Amid the outbreak, many businesses have temporarily banned the use of reusable containers and other items — most notably Starbucks, where, until recently, customers with a reusable cup could enjoy a discounted coffee. Some grocery stores have also sidelined reusable cloth bags and containers, over fears these items could spread the virus to other customers and store employees. Some communities are even reversing existing plastic bag bans or postponing their start.
What are the eco-friendly options? Where cloth bags are still allowed, it's probably fine to keep using them. The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) says, based on current research, that it "may be possible" to be infected with COVID-19 from a surface or object with the virus on it, but "this is not thought to be the main way the virus spreads."
That appears to be especially true for porous or fibrous surfaces, like cardboard or cloth. But to err on the side of caution, bags should be washed after every use and kept in a separate place at home once groceries have been unloaded.
If forced to choose between paper or plastic, try to go for bags made from recycled materials. Both kinds have their disadvantages — plastic is most often made from fossil fuels or biofuels, while the production of paper bags uses up lots of water and virgin wood — but at least the paper versions will biodegrade.
Should we avoid grocery stores? Is takeout food safe to eat?
With restaurants closed and so many people stuck at home, the takeout business is booming. It's still a reliable option — the European Food Safety Authority has said there is "currently no evidence that food is a likely source or route of transmission" of COVID-19. Heat from cooking kills off the virus, deliveries can be paid for in advance and dropped off at the door, and the risk from packaging is low.
But what about all those plastic containers and pizza boxes? They add up, even if they're made from recycled material. Another way to avoid the problem of packaging and plastic bags — and the anxiety that comes with shopping during the COVID-19 outbreak — is to stay away from grocery stores altogether.
In some areas, for example, local organic farmers and food cooperatives are still delivering.
Vegetarian meals will also reduce the number of trips to the supermarket to buy fresh meat, for those without a freezer, and are better for the climate. Vegetarian and vegan diets generally have a lower carbon footprint than those that favor meat.
Another way to reduce our reliance on the grocery store is to grow food at home. Certain vegetables and sprouts — herbs, radishes, lettuce and microgreens, for example — can be grown quickly and easily in a small garden or on a balcony or window ledge. Compost scraps from veggies like carrots and leeks, among others, can also be used to regrow sprouts.
Does laundry need to be treated differently and disinfected?
Keeping things clean is an important way to stop the spread of the virus; the CDC has recommended that we wash clothing "using the warmest appropriate water setting … and dry items completely." But the additional use of very hot water and electric dryers will increase energy consumption.
"In normal everyday life, people in private households can wash their laundry as usual," said Germany's BfR. And we don't have to resort to harsh, polluting chemicals, since all soaps and detergents can help eliminate the virus. BfR does, however, advise that we treat clothing and other textiles from sick people differently, washing these items "at a temperature of at least 60° Celsius [140 Fahrenheit] with a heavy-duty detergent" and not shaking them out.
We can continue to hang clothes to air dry on a sunny day. Though sunlight can be used to kill off pathogens, according to the WHO, it hasn't been proven effective against SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19. But the virus will find it harder to survive on dry surfaces.
To cut back on laundry, consider keeping a set of clothes to wear outside the house for trips to the grocery store or pharmacy. Once back at home, they should be removed immediately and stored in a closed bag, to give the virus time to die off. And if using a public laundromat, remember to disinfect laundry baskets and washing machines.
Reposted with permission from DW.
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EcoWatch Daily Newsletter
By Victoria Masterson
Using one of the world's problems to solve another is the philosophy behind a Norwegian start-up's mission to develop affordable housing from 100% recycled plastic.
Sustainable Homes<p>UN-Habitat says an <a href="https://unhabitat.org/un-habitat-aims-to-use-plastic-waste-to-support-housing-for-all" target="_blank">estimated 60% of people living in urban areas of Africa are in informal settlements</a>. At the same time, between 1990 and 2017, African countries imported around 230 metric tonnes of plastic, "which mostly ended up in dump sites creating a massive environmental challenge," the agency adds.</p><p>UN-Habitat deputy executive director, Victor Kisob, said the aim of the partnership with Othalo was to "promote adequate, sustainable and affordable housing for all."</p>
Artist's impression of an Othalo community, imagined by architect Julien De Smedt. Othalo<p>Othalo's process involves shredding plastic waste and mixing it with other elements, including non-flammable materials. Components are used to build up to four floors, with a home of 60 square metres using eight tons of recycled plastic. A factory with one production line can produce 2,800 housing units annually.</p><p>Following successful laboratory tests, Othalo's factory in Estonia has started producing components to build three demonstration homes for Kenya's capital, Nairobi; Yaoundé, the capital of Cameroon and Dakar, the capital of Senegal.</p><p>Othalo founder Frank Cato Lahti has been developing and testing the technology since 2016 in partnership with <a href="https://www.sintef.no/en/" target="_blank">SINTEF</a>, a 70-year-old independent research organization in Trondheim, Norway, and experts at Norway's <a href="https://en.uit.no/startsida" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">University of Tromsø</a>.</p>
Othalo founder Frank Cato Lahti. Othalo<p>Almost <a href="https://www.un.org/development/desa/publications/2018-revision-of-world-urbanization-prospects.html" target="_blank">seven out of every 10 people in the world are expected to live in urban areas by 2050</a>. More than 90% of this growth will take place in Africa, Asia, Latin America, and the Caribbean.</p><p>"In the absence of effective urban planning, the consequences of this rapid urbanization will be dramatic," UN-Habitat warns.</p><p>Lack of proper housing and growth of slums, inadequate and outdated infrastructure, escalating poverty and unemployment, and pollution and health issues, are just some of the effects.</p><p>Mindsets, policies, and approaches towards urbanization need to change for the growth of cities and urban areas to be turned into opportunities that will leave nobody behind, UN-Habitat says.</p>
Pioneers of Change<p>Reimagining cities and communities for greater resilience and sustainability was a key topic at the<a href="https://www.weforum.org/events/pioneers-of-change-summit-2020" target="_blank"> World Economic Forum's Pioneers of Change Summit 2020</a>.</p><p>The digital event brought together innovators and stakeholders from around the world to explore solutions to the challenges facing enterprises, governments and society.</p><p>Opening the summit, <a href="https://www.weforum.org/events/pioneers-of-change-summit-2020/sessions/opening-plenary-8f731cbc65" target="_blank">Stephan Mergenthaler, the Forum's Head of Strategic Intelligence and a member of the Executive Committee</a>, said: "We need to change the way we produce, the way we live and interact in our cities to make this transition to net-zero emissions a reality…</p><p>"And as this year has illustrated so dramatically, we need to make every effort that we keep populations healthy, if we want to avoid jeopardizing all this progress."</p><p><em>Reposted with permission from </em><em><a href="https://www.weforum.org/agenda/2020/11/un-africa-recycled-plastic-housing/" target="_blank">World Economic Forum</a>.</em><a href="https://www.ecowatch.com/r/entryeditor/2649069252#/" target="_self"></a></p>
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By Dolf Gielen and Morgan Bazilian
John Kerry helped bring the world into the Paris climate agreement and expanded America's reputation as a climate leader. That reputation is now in tatters, and President-elect Joe Biden is asking Kerry to rebuild it again – this time as U.S. climate envoy.
Energy Is at the Center of the Climate Challenge<p>The <a href="https://science2017.globalchange.gov/chapter/1/" target="_blank">effects of climate change</a> are already evident across the globe, from <a href="https://theconversation.com/100-degrees-in-siberia-5-ways-the-extreme-arctic-heat-wave-follows-a-disturbing-pattern-141442" target="_blank">extreme heat waves</a> to <a href="https://science2017.globalchange.gov/chapter/12/" target="_blank">sea level rise</a>. But while the challenge is daunting, there is hope. Solar and wind power have become the <a href="https://www.irena.org/publications/2020/Jun/Renewable-Power-Costs-in-2019" target="_blank">cheapest forms of power generation globally</a>, and technology progress and innovation continue apace to support a transition to clean energy.</p><p>In the U.S. under a Biden administration, long-term national climate legislation will depend on who controls the Senate, and that won't be clear until after two run-off elections in Georgia in January.</p><p>But there is no shortage of <a href="https://www.bloomberg.com/features/2020-biden-climate-change-advice/" target="_blank">ideas for ways Biden</a> could still take action even if his proposals are blocked in Congress. For example, he could use executive orders and direct government agencies to tighten regulations on greenhouse gas emissions; increase research and development in clean energy technologies; and empower states to exceed national standards, <a href="https://www.reuters.com/article/us-autos-emissions-california/defying-trump-california-locks-in-vehicle-emission-deals-with-major-automakers-idUSKCN25D2CH" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">as California did in the past with auto emission standards</a>. A focus on a just and equitable transition for communities and people affected by the decline of fossil fuels will also be key to creating a sustainable transition.</p><p>The U.S. position as the world's largest oil and gas producer and consumer creates political challenges for any administration. U.S. forays into European energy security are often treated with suspicion. Recently, France blocked <a href="https://www.wsj.com/articles/frances-engie-backs-out-of-u-s-lng-deal-11604435609" target="_blank">a multi-billion dollar contract</a> to buy U.S. liquefied natural gas because of concerns about limited emissions regulations in Texas.</p><p>Strengthening cooperation and partnerships with like-minded countries will be critical to bring about a transition to cleaner energy as well as sustainability in agriculture, forestry, water and other sectors of the global economy.</p>
Creating a Global Sustainable Transition<p>How the world recovers from COVID-19's economic damage could help drive a lasting shift in the global energy mix.</p><p>Nearly one-third of Europe's US$2 trillion economic relief package <a href="https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2020-07-21/eu-approves-biggest-green-stimulus-in-history-with-572-billion-plan" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">involves investments that are also good for the climate</a>. The European Union is also strengthening its 2030 climate targets, though each country's energy and climate plans will be critical for successfully implementing them. The <a href="https://joebiden.com/clean-energy/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Biden plan</a> – including a $2 trillion commitment to developing sustainable energy and infrastructure – is aligned with a global energy transition, but its implementation is also uncertain.</p><p>Once Biden takes office, Kerry will be joining ongoing <a href="https://www.un.org/en/conferences/energy2021/about#:%7E:text=The%20overarching%20goal%20of%20the,2030%20Agenda%20for%20Sustainable%20Development.&text=Accelerate%20delivery%20of%20United%20Nations,related%20issues%20at%20all%20levels." target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">high-level discussions on the energy transition</a> at the U.N. General Assembly and other gatherings of international leaders. With the U.S. no longer obstructing work on climate issues, the G-7 and G-20 have more potential for progress on energy and climate.</p><p>Lots of technical details still need to be worked out, including international trade frameworks and standards that can help countries lower greenhouse gas emissions enough to keep global warming in check. <a href="https://www.carbonpricingleadership.org/what" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Carbon pricing</a> and <a href="https://www.csis.org/analysis/how-can-europe-get-carbon-border-adjustment-right" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">carbon border adjustment taxes</a>, which create incentive for companies to reduce emissions, may be part of it. A consistent and comprehensive set of national energy transition plans will also be needed.</p><p>The global shift to <a href="https://www.irena.org/publications/2019/Jan/A-New-World-The-Geopolitics-of-the-Energy-Transformation" target="_blank">clean energy will also have geopolitical implications for countries and regions</a>, and this will have a profound impact on wider international relations. Kerry, with his experience as secretary of state in the Obama administration, and Biden's plan to make the climate envoy position part of the National Security Council, may help mend these relations. In doing so, the U.S. may again join the wider community of countries willing to lead.</p>
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By Maria Caffrey
As we approach the holidays I, like most people, have been reflecting on everything 2020 has given us (or taken away) while starting to look ahead to 2021.